Post-modernism and the Past in the World of Pleasantville

Post modernism, when discussed purely in terms of theory is a difficult concept to grasp, it is not until it is applied through examples of texts that connections can finally be made concerning the relationship of postmodern texts to the past. While the use of real world examples help to get a grip on the application of these concepts, they do not solve the problem of perspective that lingers after considering Jameson and Hutcheon’s conflicting views on the post-modern and how it articulates with the past. Considering a physical example beyond theory, however, does spark a critical discussion that is necessary in forming ones preferred way of thinking about the nature of the past with respect to the postmodern.

Pleasantville is an interesting text to look at when considering the relationship between postmodernism and the past, as well as the effect of these texts on memory as they attempt to showcase the past. With the differing opinions of Jameson and Hutcheon, it is necessary to analyze the relationship between the work and the past in following with both views. In the film, there is no question that a relationship exists between the past and the present. This correlation is evident through the colourization process that depicts the dominant effect of the present over the past in creating a new reality that transcends present ideals into the past world of an idealized 50s sitcom. The question to be considered is if the aspects borrowed from the past were used to simply re-create a 50’s sitcom style as a mechanism of pastiche, or if there is a historical background and purpose that supports the inclusion of specific elements such as the use of the community, the patriarchy and the idea of a perfect society?

Jameson’s key issue with the representation of the past through postmodernism is that the past is so fragmented that we no longer really have access to our history. Instead, we use our own idealized construction of the past that produces a sense of longing. This nostalgia is an inauthentic view of the past and makes our relationship with it just as inauthentic. In his opinion, the combination of aspects from the past serve no purpose other than to aesthetically re-create a style, making no comments. While it is true that the past is extremely fragmented and impossible

to access in the form it once took in the present, the constructed past in Pleasantville does not try to represent a realistic past, but rather a digital one. The level of reflexivity in Pleasantville suggests that they are not trying to achieve a true construction of the past, as there is constant recognition that the characters are operating within an idealized sitcom setting. This reflexivity is present for a reason and suggests that it is a choice that was made in order to make certain comments on the media, rather than simply re-create a style which would have been achievable without the element of reflexivity. The recognition of the intertextuality at play has a key role in exposing the range of comments being made, extending beyond the relationship of the past and the present. Pleasantville uses the context of the 50s sitcom not only to critique the relationship between past and present, but also to comment on older text’s treatment of the past and how they work to develop our present memory.

Following with this line of thinking, Hutcheon claims that the post modern’s engagement with the past does indeed have a critical potential to comment on these past events and their relationship with the present. I would argue that these aspects of the past were all purposely included to force us to reflect on many aspects of past society, albeit in a very dramatized way, which holds its own significance. One of the cultural references that I found to be most shocking was the reference to the burning of the books in Nazi Germany along with the other fascist commentary. These historical events were evoked in the 50s sitcom setting, in opposition to its standard narrative that is usually light-hearted and free of political unrest. This reference both de-valued the serious nature of these historical events and also made a critical comment on the nature of the media’s use of history. Both interpretation’s shape the viewer’s opinion about the past events and relate them back to the present context in which they are being used. The burning of the books is adapted to fit with the theme of the 50s sitcom, it is overdramatized in a massive over reaction to the plot, and makes a comment on the unnecessary extremity of the events that occurred during the second world war.

It is undoubted that the repetition of these historical images evoke troubled emotions concerning that past. This emotional response is responsible for connecting the individual with the referenced historical events and makes it impossible for them not to impose their own meaning on the work from personal experience and knowledge. Thus, making it very difficult to engage with aspects of the past, including those used in Pleasantville, without considering what they meant in the past as well as what they mean inserted into the present context.

Postmodernism, with its many definitions, remains a mystery in the process of being uncovered through the analysis of different postmodern works and how they articulate with the world. In the case of Pleasantville and its relationship to the past, I found that it is in the midst of evoking an active critique for the viewer. This active critique forces the viewer to consider the past within the context of the 50s sitcom (a past within a past) and by doing this it is able to make an important statement about historical events while maintaining a story line that is critically different from the reality of the past.

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